What impact has new feminist research had on the afterlives of earlier women, whether in the classroom or a museum? Who and how are these earlier women compiled, remembered and represented? These are two of the central questions that were posed by last week’s Recovering Women’s Past: New Epistemologies, New Ventures conference, organised by Séverine Genieys-Kirk at the University of Edinburgh. The event considered not just the recovery of women from history but the various ways in which that recovery informs new narratives. It rampaged across period boundaries from the medieval to the present and embraced a host of disciplines and art-forms, generating conversations about British, Czech, Dutch, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish women, between philosophers and theatre-makers, cultural historians and gallery curators, literary critics and film-producers.
The first panel focused on philosophy. Nancy Kendricks (with Jessica Gordon-Roth) discussed the still-formidable obstacles to the admission of women philosophers – either to its historical canon or as current practitioners – within that discipline. That sobering analysis was bolstered positively by the three case studies of intellectuals that followed: Véronique Desnain on Gabrielle Suchon, the late seventeenth-century writer on the condition of women; Sarah Hutton on the eighteenth-century mathematician, Emilie Du Châtelet, and her reputation in posterity; and Paula Yurss Lasanta on the late eighteenth-century political radical, Helen Maria Williams.
The second session addressed the gender politics of historiography. Anne Marie Hagen investigated how female heroines were portrayed in historical biographies aimed at Victorian and Edwardian children. Suzan van Dijk reflected on her experience of organising a recent travelling exhibition in the Netherlands. Based on research conducted as part of the Travelling TexTs project and aiming to publicise nineteenth-century Dutch women writers, the exhibition engaged voluntary collaborators and drew on local archives to foreground particular women of each region on the tour. María Jesús Lorenzo Modia gave a fascinating paper on the adventures of María d’Estrada, a Jewish girl raised by gypsies who left Spain for the New World in the sixteenth century, becoming an acclaimed warrior – then and since – who participated in the conquest of Tlaxcala (Mexico). Begoña Lasa-Álvarez rounded off the panel with a discussion of Queen Isabella of Castile as an exemplary role model in nineteenth-century biographies expressly aimed at providing worthy examples for young girls.
The conference keynote was given by Gina Luria Walker, whose lifetime of recovering, editing and promoting women’s intellectual history was most recently manifested in the 6-volume Chawton House edition of Mary Hays’s Female Biography (1803) (Pickering & Chatto, 2013, 2014), a research collaboration that involved 164 scholars. The subject of Walker’s talk on this occasion was Virginia Woolf. Beginning with Woolf’s own education at the hands of two women, she contrasted the paralysis entailed in Woolf’s famous imagining of Judith Shakespeare with the archival energy of Mary Hays 126 years before her, and asked: if Woolf could imagine Judith, why couldn’t she imagine the scholar-detectives of later generations? Walker is the director of Project Continua, a website dedicated to the recovery and promotion of biographies of accomplished women, and continues to push for wider recognition of female role models in contemporary culture (embodying her neat pun: ‘persisters’).
The second day began with me discussing RECIRC, and Carme Font analysing a little-known intervention on behalf of women by the clergyman Samuel Torshell, in his sermon on the birthday of Princess Elizabeth of England, The Womans Glorie, which was published in 1645.
From western to eastern Europe: Zuzana Gabrišová’s research on Czech women’s poetry from 1857 to 2014 has located over 250 collections published in that period. Her talk addressed the ideological and aesthetic challenges facing recovery research – comprehensive versus selective anthologisation, contemporary poets’ fears of being ghettoised by feminist scholarship, marketing and copyright. Alexandra Smith’s paper centred on the Russian-Ukrainian artist and diarist, Maria Bashkirtseva, who died in 1884 aged 25. It teased out the extent of her influence – in particular, in relation to self-fashioning – on later writers including Marina Tsvetaeva, Ivan Bunin and Anna Akhmatova.
A visit to the nearby Talbot Rice Gallery exhibition of American artist Alice Neel’s work was supported by Pat Fischer’s guided tour. The final panel of the second day was on the visual arts. Lara Perry spoke about the representation of women in art historiography, disentangling biography from artistic discourse and fiction as modes of analysis. Frances Fowle’s discussion of John Singer Sargent’s 1890s portraits of ‘New Women’ asked whether the painter adopted a satirical or sympathetic view toward his subjects. See, for example, his controversial portrait, ‘Madame X’.
Alice Strang spoke about her experiences curating the Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965 exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2015-2016): the rationale for the focus on sculpture and painting, the dilemmas of selection and representativeness and the responses those decisions aroused.
The second day concluded with a screening and discussion of the documentary film March, which related the genesis and 2015 production of the suffragette play, A Pageant of Great Women by Cicely Hamilton, on International Women’s Day. Director Anna Birch was present to fill us in on the processes involved (see http://womenslibrary.org.uk/discover-our-projects/march-of-women/ for more information).
The third and final day of the conference was hosted by l’Institut Français d’Ecosse – which has a wonderful view over Dean Gardens.
The first two panels explored treatments of queenship by historians and film-makers. Susan Broomhall’s paper (expertly delivered via skype) was a damning indictment of historiographical treatments of Catherine de Medici, from Wikipedia to sixteenth-century diplomats and later histories, revealing the roots of these accounts in their narrators’ own emotions. Elena Woodacre exposed the regional biases of Navarrese, Breton and English perspectives on Joan of Navarre, duchess of Brittany and subsequently queen of England (via her marriage to Henry IV). Mary Spongberg explored how the nineteenth-century historian, Lucy Aikin, adapted the genre of the courtly memoir from early modern French models in order to express dissent and critique Regency repression in her own history writing.
The second panel on queenship focused on filmic representations. Armel Duboit-Nayt examined Thomas Imbach’s portrait of Mary Queen of Scots in the eponymous film of 2013, itself based on Stefan Zweig’s 1935 romantic biography, Mary Stuart. The perfect companion was Séverine Genieys-Kirk’s talk on representations of Queen Christina of Sweden, which mainly focused on Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 version starring Greta Garbo. She expertly unpicked its gender politics and, comparing Garbo’s Christina to Sophie Marceau’s Eloise in Bernard Tavernier’s 1994 La Fille de d’Artagnan, proposed the inn scene of the latter as a pastiche of the former.
The final session remained true to this cross- and inter-textual spectrum of afterlives. Alexandria Patience discussed her experiences in Canadian theatre and co-authorship of the play Aphra (premiered in Calgary in 1991 and recently published in print in Scotland), about the Restoration playwright Aphra Behn. This talk was balanced with Clarissa Palmer’s description of co-writing Olympe de Gouges, Porteuse d’Espoir (first performed in 2012), centred on the life of the eighteenth-century French political activist. The audience was treated to extracts from both plays in ‘unrehearsed readings’. Finally, Barbara Sylvain presented the two-woman show she devised with Lula Béry based on the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots (again) and Elizabeth I: It’s So Nice (first performed 2011). For their engaging trailer for the show, see http://ohmygod-cie.be/?page=oh-my-god-production&lang=en.
The sheer diversity of disciplines, language-traditions, and timeframes had me scribbling frantically throughout. It’s also proved a valuable snapshot of just how rich and multidisciplinary the field of women’s history and cultural production is. Podcasts are planned: we’ll keep you posted.